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Home / Brunch / The makeover of Pankaj Tripathi

The makeover of Pankaj Tripathi

The actor who hails from an unknown village in Bihar, has finally accepted the importance of looking good, and has given in to a styling team that makes him exclaim, ‘Getting ready now takes a village!’

brunch Updated: Mar 21, 2020 21:29 IST
Ananya Ghosh
Ananya Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Pankaj Tripathi, a boy from an unknown village of Bihar is today the toast of Bollywood and a National Award winning actor; Knit, Zara; jeans, Armani Exchange; jacket, Canali; shoes, H&M ; Styling: Vineet Chauhan; Make-up & hair: Eikash Darnal
Pankaj Tripathi, a boy from an unknown village of Bihar is today the toast of Bollywood and a National Award winning actor; Knit, Zara; jeans, Armani Exchange; jacket, Canali; shoes, H&M ; Styling: Vineet Chauhan; Make-up & hair: Eikash Darnal(Shivangi Kulkarni)

The last time I met Pankaj Tripathi, 43, I’d contacted him via his social media page, the interview was scheduled over a few phone calls, and I had to wait for a month because he was busy. When he arrived for the interview, he walked in alone, and for the shoot he just ran his fingers through his hair and we were ready. This was before Mirzapur and Stree.

“I am putting a bit of effort now in my get-up and styling. Two years ago, I had no idea that appearance and marketing are also part of this profession!”

This time when I text him, his PR manager calls. And I am told that for the shoot he’ll have his own stylist and, hair and make-up person. I do a double take. Are we talking about the same person? But I get a date much faster than the last time. “Main aapka magazine padta hun. Main dekhta hun sab actors chhapte hain, toh mujhe bhi mann tha ki main bhi aa jaun usmein (I read your magazine and see all actors you feature. So, I also had the desire to be featured). Aaj thora time mila (I got some time today), Netflix ne yeh date cancel kiya last-minute, toh socha yeh kar leta hun (Netflix cancelled the date last-minute so I thought let me do this interview),” he says with a smile when we meet at an Andheri studio.

I can’t help but ask him what’s with this new entourage. “Mein bhi thhora koshish kar raha hu dost,” he says shyly. “I am putting a bit of effort in my get-up and styling. Even two years ago I had no idea that appearance and marketing are also part of this profession. Now Amazon and Netflix have made me more aware of this side of my job. Now I am aware. I have realised that even if I need a dishevelled look, that need to be done aesthetically. Jaise it is important ke acting mein acting na dikhe, similarly styling ho par who stylized na lagey,” Tripathi explains.

Tasting success

Today Tripathi is one of the most popular actors in the Hindi entertainment industry, but success has hardly had an impact on the man apart from these minor tweaks. “Pehle main job ko dhundta thha aab job mujhe dhunddti hai. (Earlier on I used to hunt for work, now work hunts me). I have become very busy. I don’t get to spend much time with my daughter,” he says.

Having said that, he’s enjoying his success. So much so, that back in his village Belsand, Bihar, which he left decades ago if there’s any crisis, they call and ask him to talk to the people concerned. “Everyone respects me, even the officers working there,” he says.

“There are still no proper roads there and it’s difficult to even think that a boy from that village would dream of becoming an actor, let alone become one! ...My dream was to buy a tractor some day”

“There are still no proper roads there and it’s difficult to even think that a boy from that village would dream of becoming an actor, let alone become one! There were no movie theatres nearby, there still aren’t, and there was no TV either. A rare few houses would have a radio, and ours was not one of those! We’d go to other people’s houses to listen to cricket commentary. In those days, Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev were gods. Imagine, during the making of 83 (Kabir Khan’s film), I met the entire team! I can’t say it was a dream come true…for people like us, even dreams didn’t feature celebs. My dream was to buy a tractor some day!”

“My life has unfolded like a fairy tale and my journey is impacting the kids growing up in such remote villages. If I can come this far, so can each one of them,” says Tripathi, adding that there is still no movie theatre in his village and the nearest is 12 km away. “But the kids travel all the way to watch my movies apart from catching the webseries on mobile phones. Achcha lagta hai!”

It takes a village…

The village is still his world. He feels restless because he has not met his 94-year-old father, Pandit Banaras Tripathi, in the last few months. Earlier, when he would return to college in Patna from his home in the village, he and his father would lug his monthly ration of groceries to the station on their bicycle, wheeling it for seven kilometers. There was only one train to Patna from his home then. Today, the same journey takes him three hours by car.

According to Pankaj Tripathi, although Bollywood is changing,  the stereotyping still exists; Turtleneck, Armani Exchange
According to Pankaj Tripathi, although Bollywood is changing, the stereotyping still exists; Turtleneck, Armani Exchange ( Shivangi Kulkarni )

He moved to Patna for college and the big city opened his mind. “I became an active member of the student union for which, I even went to jail for seven days,” he remembers. “I was good at sports, and then I was introduced to the world of theatre.”

It was 1996, and the culturally rich ambiance of Patna sucked him in. “I’d go to all kinds of cultural programmes: classical music, dance, theatre. In the Hindi belt, the quality of theatre is very rich. For two years, I watched everything. Then I decided to be part of the action. I started as a ‘runner’; I would get tea/coffee for the crew. Then I did small backstage chores, and when an actor missed a rehearsal I gave his lines,” he recalls.

“Movies never charmed me, though I was a fan of Sanjay Dutt, Jackie Shroff and Madhuri Dixit!”

These weren’t his first acting experiences, however. As a child, Tripathi had once filled in for a missing actor in a play enacted during chhat puja. “Once it so happened that the guy who was supposed to play the main female character didn’t turn up, and no one else was willing to fill-in for him. So I stepped in. But I didn’t care about acting at that point. These were very amateur plays and nobody learnt their lines. The director would prompt from behind the curtain. And the one whose prompting did not reach the audience in the first row would be considered a great director,” he laughs out loud.

The world becomes a stage

In Patna, sustaining himself by working the night shifts at a hotel, Tripathi fell in love with acting and joined the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi. “It is a place jahan paise nahi lagte, ulta aapko paise milte hain (where you don’t have to spend money, on the contrary you are paid) as stipend! So, I went for the admission tests and got through in 3rd attempt. Now that I think of it, we learned to act on taxpayers’ money. That means it is our responsibility to give our best while acting,” he says. “Now that society has accepted me as an actor, I have a responsibility towards it. I prefer doing films with a social message, but not in a preachy way.”

But it was theatre and not movies that Tripathi had his heart set on. “Movies never charmed me, though I was a fan of Sanjay Dutt, Jackie Shroff and Madhuri Dixit! It still hasn’t sunk in that I worked with Jackie Shroff in Hotstar’s Criminal Justice (2019). I never thought I’d ever see any of these people face to face. People like us don’t!” he says.

Mumbai’s most wanted

The struggle to act professionally was long drawn out. Tripathi moved to Mumbai when he realised theatre in Patna would not support him financially. He was married then. Mridula (his wife) was a teacher and the sole earning member of the family for eight years.

“If Dhirubhai Ambani had auditioned in Bollywood, I am sure he would have been rejected. The casting director would have said: You are not ‘rich-looking’ enough!”

“We stayed in a small one-room kitchen apartment. It had a rent of Rs 2500 which my wife paid,” Tripathi says. During these years, he went from one studio to the other with hard copies of his pictures, looking for audition opportunities. “Once a friend called to say that he is shooting some crime serial and they have put my photo, which I had sent for one of the auditions, on the most-wanted wall at the set. They needed random pictures and had found mine lying around! ” he laughs.

The Urban legend

Today, Tripathi is Bollywood’s ‘most wanted’. He was brilliant in Gurgaon and Newton, equally effortless as the butcher-henchman in Gangs of Wasseypur and super convincing as the liberal and supportive father in Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017). While Sacred Games Season 1 had the audience talking about Saif Ali Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the second season was all about Guruji, aka Pankaj Tripathi.

“ It is true that your cultural landscape, social conditioning and upbringing have an impact on your body language. But an actor’s biggest tool is his imagination”

But even now, he says, Bollywood has a bias towards beauty. “Hindi cinema will not give me a role of some corporate guy. Bollywood is changing and we are talking about how characters are becoming heroes, but the stereotyping is still there. People still hesitate to give me urban characters. If Dhirubhai Ambani had auditioned in Bollywood, I am sure he would have been rejected. The casting director would have said: You are not ‘rich-looking’ enough!” he laughs adding that Bollywood needs to get over this misconception that actors need to draw inspiration from reality.

“There are people who believe that since I don’t belong to urban high society, I might not be able to do justice to such a character. It is true that your cultural landscape, social conditioning and upbringing have an impact on your body language. But an actor’s biggest tool is his imagination.”

Meryl Streep, Who?

Perhaps Tripathi’s biggest advantage in the world of Hindi cinema is that he rarely watches movies and so has no imaginative stereotypes to contend with. “I love acting, but I am not besotted by cinema,” he says. “I don’t even watch the films I am in.”

Instead, he reads.It is a habit he picked up while doing his 7-day jail term back in college union days. “Reading is a brilliant exercise for actors: you can imagine and interpret the characters in your head. I find it more useful than watching someone else’s interpretation of it on screen. ,” he says.

As for Hollywood…well, Tripathi only watched his first ever Meryl Streep film on a flight last year. “Adbhut actress hai woh. Main toh unki acting ke moh mein par gaya (She is a unique actress. I’m mesmerised by her),” he smiles. People once claimed that his acting style was reminiscent of Marlon Brando, but Tripathi had never heard of Brando before the comparisons began. “I searched YouTube and watched a few of his scenes. That’s all I know of any Marlon Brando film.”

And now his first international project is all set for release. Directed by Sam Hargrave, written by Joe Russo and starring Chris Hemsworth in the lead, Extraction is an action thriller that will see our favourite Kaleen Bhaiyya play a warlord!

Also read: ‘Character actors’ are the new heroes of Bollywood

Follow @ananya1281 on Twitter

From HT Brunch, March 15, 2020

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